Grassley launches probe of ATF’s ‘Project Gunrunner’
by Dave Workman
Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, has launched an inquiry into allegations that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ (ATF) “Project Gunrunner” operation may have allowed guns to get into the hands of Mexican outlaws who gunned down an agent for the Customs and Border Protection agency in December.
An assistant attorney general has strenuously denied any wrongdoing. In a pair of letters to Acting ATF Director Kenneth E. Melson, Grassley revealed that members of the Judiciary Committee had received “numerous allegations that the ATF sanctioned the sale of hundreds of assault weapons to suspected straw purchasers.” These guns were circulated throughout the Southwest and eventually were transported into Mexico.
Grassley’s letter to Melson, dated Jan. 27 asserted, “According to the allegations, one of these individuals purchased three assault rifles with cash in Glendale, Arizona on January 16, 2010. Two of the weapons were then allegedly used in a firefight on December 14, 2010 against Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents, killing CBP Agent Brian Terry.”
The senator also noted, “There are serious concerns that the ATF may have become careless, if not negligent, in implementing the Gunrunner strategy.”
But Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich responded in a Feb. 4 letter that the allegation contained in Grassley’s letter is “false.”
“ATF makes ever effort to interdict weapons that have been purchased illegally and prevent their transportation to Mexico,” Weich wrote. According to the Arizona Republic, a source with the Department of Justice confirmed that one of the guns involved in that slaying had been traced to the Lone Wolf Trading Company in Glendale, AZ. Gun Week obtained copies of the indictments in which it is noted that on Jan. 16, 2010, suspect Jaime Avila Jr. bought three AK-47 type rifles from Lone Wolf Trading Company. Avila has been charged with making false statements on the Form 4473. Avila is one of the more prolific gun buyers named in the indictments.
In his follow-up letter three days later, Grassleyapparently alerted to what may have been an attempt to quiet an Arizona-based ATF agent who spoke with the senator’s staffadvised Melson that a senior ATF official in Phoenix “allegedly accused the agent of misconduct related to his contacts with the Senate Judiciary Committee.” Grassley’s letter identified the official as the assistant special agent in charge, George Gillette.
A clearly perturbed Grassley advised Melson, “As you may be aware, obstructing a Congressional investigation is a crime. Additionally, denying or interfering with employees’ rights to furnish information to Congress is also against the law.”
Later in that same follow-up letter, Grassley was even more blunt.
“ATF employees have the right to talk to Congress and to provide Congress with information free and clear of agency interference,” he wrote. “Further, these employees have the right to be free from fear of retaliation or reprisal for doing so.”
One day after the story broke, Phoenix Special Agent in Charge William D. Newell was reportedly assigned as the ATF’s attaché to Mexico.
The Project Gunrunner inquiry began with a pair of curious high-profile Internet bloggers, David Codrea and Mike Vanderboegh. They had been writing about Gunrunner since early January and had developed confidential contacts last fall who apparently confirmed their suspicions about guns being allowed to make it into Mexico as part of the sting operation. Vanderboegh has since suggested ATF is “stonewalling” Grassley.
Grassley told Melson in his Jan. 27 letter that, “These extremely serious allegations were accompanied by detailed documentation which appears to lend credibility to the claim and partially corroborates them.”
A source in Grassley’s office told Gun Week that Senate Judiciary staffers had interviewed some individuals, but that they had not spoken directly with the senator.
The senator’s inquiry began within days of the announcement of a major arrest in Arizona related to the Gunrunner operation (see Gun Week 2/15/11 issue story). The ATF arrested at least 17 people and announced indictments of 34 individuals suspected of being involved in a major gun smuggling ring.
But Grassley also noted that the Department of Justice Office of Inspector General had “released a review of…Project Gunrunner in November 2010, in which the OIG concluded that (the project) has been unsuccessful in large part because… ‘the investigative focus has largely remained on gun dealer inspections and straw purchase investigations, rather than targeting higher-level traffickers and smugglers’.”
When Grassley did not receive a reply, or even acknowledgement, of his first letter, he sent the second one Jan. 31. Grassley’s office did not release either letter to the press, but copies were obtained by Gun Week and other news agencies, and by Codrea and Vanderboegh, who posted them on their respective websites. From there, the letters raced across the Internet.
Morale problems within the ATF have been widely rumored for sometime, and revelation of Grassley’s inquiry added to their frustration. Some ATF employees utilize a website, cleanupatf.org, to voice their frustrations.
Codrea told Gun Week that he and Vanderboegh initially were concerned primarily with bringing their confidential sources together with Senate staff so they would be fully protected by federal whistleblower statutes. Once that was accomplished, he said it was then up to the mainstream press to bring the issue wider public attention, which happened fast once the Associated Press got copies of the Grassley letters.
However, the Arizona Republic also reported that an ATF spokesman in Phoenix initially claimed ignorance of Grassley’s inquiry. ATF’s Tom Mangan was quoted by the newspaper noting that he was “unaware of any guns allowed to go south of the border” inadvertently or intentionally.
“I am not aware of any internal investigation that’s going on regarding Project Gunrunner,” he told the newspaper.
Bill Newell, ATF special agent in charge for Arizona, told reporters the same thing following an earlier press conference announcing the Project Gunrunner arrests, the Arizona Republic reported.
In a subsequent report, the Associated Press quoted Grassley spokeswoman Beth Levine, who said the Justice Department had promised to brief the senator.
“However,” she noted at the time, “the briefing has still not occurred, and documents provided with the allegations are not consistent with (the) denial. There are many specific questions that need to be answered in full by the Justice Department as soon as possible.”
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